Smudge Sticks are nothing more than a bundle of dried plant material, but in something so simple, there exists an inherent presence of old lore, tales, and history. The popular belief is that by burning specific fragrant herbs, they may be able to ward off spirits, or purify their surroundings. Quite often this tradition is pushed as being a Native American invention, but we know from history books that people have been burning a wide variety of plants for millennia.

The exact origin of using smudge sticks is not quite clear at this point in time.

“Where ever you go in North America, one of those sacred plants (Sage, Sweetgrass, Tobacco or Cedar) will be growing.” – Elder Buck, Opaskwayak Cree Nation

Native Americans made smudge sticks out of many different plants including white sage (Salvia apiana), sierra cedar, high desert pinoin, desert sage, dakota sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), black sage (Salvia mellifera), blue sage (Artemisia tridentata), yerba santa, and lavender. However, specific herbs used by one tribe may have been completely taboo to another tribe, or used for a completely different purpose. Culinary Sage (Salvia officinalis) on the other hand, is not native to North America, and was not traditionally made into smudges. Interestingly, the Latin root of salvia is salvare, which means to heal.

Traditional Native American Usage

The practice of harvesting smudging plants has a long history dating back thousands of years. The tradition of using these plants is still quite adherent in Native American culture today among tribes such as the Cree, Ojibwe, and Cherokee. Justin Neely, director of Citizen Potawatomi Nation says: “…people will often smudge off their pipes and eagle feathers before using them.” These herbs were commonly burned in small smudging pots or abalone shells during cleansing and purification rituals.

“Smudging is smoke that rises up that we run our spiritual items through before using them and something we do to people before entering a ceremony. We also bless certain areas such as the dance arena and even the room we do general council at before we start the meeting.”    – Justin Neely, Potawatomi Nation

Smudging Practices

Traditionally, extreme care was taken while harvesting these ceremonial plants.

Harvesting times were strict, and the specific day, month, year, dawn, evening, or even the lunar cycle played a role in such decisions. Gertrude Allen, a Lumbee Tribe member, has mentioned that her father, a Native American healer, stated that sage varies in potency at different times of the year.

It was a common theme among Native American rituals to symbolize and balance the four elements. The shell, or clay bowl was thought to represent water. Herbs and plant resins were central to the earth element. The feather is circular to the air element, and the flame of course represents fire.

Occasionally a single herb was used, but a blend was more common. The Cree people call their blends a kinnikinnick, and such blends can contain up to 30 plants, each chosen for a specific spiritual reason, or to treat a specific illness. While burning, it was also quite common to vocally say a prayer, or sometimes even chant.

“Sweet grass grows high in the Rocky Mountains. A gift from the creator, it is said this grass never dies. It is one of the great smells reminding us of the mountains and open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of the desert. It is also a present from the Creator. Tobacco is another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It carries the two great smells of the mountain and desert. It is a visual representation of our thoughts and prayers being transported.” – John Joseph, Chinook Shaman

A Native American Smudging Prayer

Creator, Great Mystery
Source of all knowing and comfort,
Cleanse this space of all negativity.
Open our pathways to peace and understanding.
Love and light fills each of us and our sacred space.
Our work here shall be beautiful and meaningful.

Banish all energies that would mean us harm.Our eternal gratitude.

– The Medicine Wheel Garden, E. Barrie Kavasch